Saturday, 29 September 2007

Johnstone River Crocodile Farm

ON our first day at CVA, we were taken to Hartley's Creek Crocodile Farm, and then spent two weeks in the rainforest such that by the end we were a little rainforested-out. Today we boarded OzExperience for the first time, whereupon they took us to a rainforest, and then a crocodile farm.

Hartley's had been enjoyable - we rode a boat and the feeding of the crocs was exciting, if a little unfair, with animals teased in the name of entertainment. It was here that Kirsty and I were chased by a cassowary, and where we met Davo the galah. From the very second we arrived at Johnstone River Crocodile Farm in Innisfail this morning, however, I knew that I was going to despise it.

While waiting in the car park, the owner Mick boarded to smuggle us in on an OzExperience hush-hush 'cheap rate'. Immediately he began boasting about the size of the crocodiles they had, how you could have the opportunity to be bitten by a snake (a free drink would be offered if you were) and made lots of predictable jokes about which nationality would be fed to the crocodiles first (Canadians for the record). He was brash and imposing and from his tone it was evident that crocodiles and other animals would be taunted in the name of an exciting show.

But then he did something horrendous. He announced that crocodiles could be lurking anywhere, and proceeded to pull a live baby croc from inside his shirt and threw it at Rose, an English girl sat two seats ahead. He then ordered us off, took our money and passed us on to Alexander, our German guide.

Alexander first showed us a cassowary - kicking the fence and mocking the bird, claiming it didn't like Germans. This of course was not the case. The cassowary simply did not like being threatened and teased. Alexander poked it with a rake too.

Next up were the american alligators, who hissed when he kicked their fence.

He then ordered us down a narrow pathway, armed with bread, to feed some kangaroos. The pathway narrowed and considering the previous few moments since arrival, we began to feel caged in and paranoid, as if we were being led into a trap. Maybe some hungry taipan were lined up for the kill or a giant man-eating, flat-faced kangaroo had been found alive and was waiting for its dinner! In fact no, some tame and docile normal kangaroos were sat waiting for us, and I was quite content sat on the floor with an audience of megapods munching happily on their rolls.

This contentment did not last long. Next up was the crocodile feeding, and it was worse than I had predicted. Mick poked and taunted crocodiles - even sat on one - and treated them like a circus act. This, of course, is what they were. This is a farm. They grow crocodiles in cramped conditions with hundreds of others (and crocodiles are not naturally social creatures), deprive them of direct daylight (they showed us the pens, I know this to be true) and then kill them to make handbags. Those that are too dangerous, or for whatever reason do not pass the test, are turned into circus acts to bolster revenue.

Mick is a cruel man, an imbecile, and stronger things besides.

The other reason why I don't like him is thus: at the end of the tour, there was an opportunity to hold a baby croc. By my positioning, I was unable to say no. Yet while I was holding the poor creature, Mick snuck up behind me and threw a snake on my back.

Snakes are my only phobia. I froze, paralyzed by terror. I knew that health and safety would never allow it to be a posionous snake, but this was a madman, who treats animals like dirt. I had no idea what was slithering over me, and I became extremely paranoid when the snake decided to explore the back of my neck. All the while, Mick had wandered off and started shoving another snake down one man's trousers, thus taking his attention away from the evil thing making me shake. I shouldn't complain of course, the other man had a snake being shoved down his trousers, but each man has a separate fear threshold. I was beyond mine. Eventually Alexander came by and politely asked whether I might like to give the snake to someone else to give them a go. I didn't need to be asked twice.

Johnstone River Crocodile Farm is a bad place, and I encourage you never to go there.

Blimey! I realise the last few blogs have been rants. I promise the next one will be happy!

Friday, 28 September 2007

In Memory of Kirsty

OUR second and final week of volunteering for CVA has not been anywhere near as fun. On the plus side we never actually went to a swamp, and thus nobody got anything so much as a nip from a crocodile. In addition we got to play with machetes and pick axes and I got to entertain my action hero persona by swinging at a tree from a high branch in order to demolish it, which was all good fun. However it has mostly been a hot, dry and hard week.

Yesterday we had to say goodbye to Kirsty. For reasons that don't need exploring at this juncture she had to leave us after work on Thursday, catch a coach back to Cairns and fly the epic 43-hour journey back to Belfast today. She is a fun, energetic and entertaining person and we all missed her horrendously the second the bus disappeared in the distance. This blog entry is dedicated to her, so that when she eventually reads it she will not feel so bad about leaving us behind.

Today has in fact been the worst day of the week. On Monday we planted around 200 trees along an irrigation channel. The land had been ploughed and the weather was cool. This and the early morning rain also made digging fairly easy. Upon arrival at our site at Mission Beach this morning we were tasked with planting 250 trees in half a day with one fewer member. A tall order in fine conditions, today was impossibly hot and the ground riddled with thick tree roots. Even with pick axes and a petrol-powered auger, work was approaching impossible. In addition, our dithering leader had forgotten to fill up the water supply back at the backpackers hostel so we had no source of hydration, and the council worker assigned to look after us, henceforth named Stoner Jim, disappeared for a cigarette and occasionally took a few tree saplings out of his trailer.

About an hour in our leader, who often errs on sexist and has singled me out as the weakest male, commented that there were a few roots about. At this stage the auger was on the brink of breaking, as were our tempers. Meanwhile Stoner Jim, who had the admiration of our leader despite having fewer muscles than even me, went and had a sit down at the creek. The management switched to more "girly" tasks the second the going got tough while we surrendered and had many morning breaks without permission, taking shelter from the tenacious and misanthropic insects. Using a pick axe can be fun, but perhaps never in Queensland.

Then, just as we had finally finished, Jeannette slipped on a rock and gashed her knee. Coupled with my blistered and badly cut fingers from Wednesday's "bush bashing", the week has not been gentle.

Despite all this we did at least get to have lunch on the beach and we were on the road to Cairns just after 1pm. At the headquarters we were presented with certificates of thanks and we reflected on our time. I have genuinely enjoyed working with CVA - last week was undoubtedly more enjoyable, but even this week has had its perks. It is a good feeling to know that you've done some important and substantial work for the environment. Perhaps, or indeed probably, the majority of the trees we planted will succumb to weed competition, or be eaten, or perhaps the soil we planted them in was too harsh or dry for the species chosen, but some will survive and every little step towards preserving and restoring the tropical Queensland rainforest is a worthy one.

None more so can this be summarised by a local man who came to chat with us during a break on Wednesday. Addressing us as 'brothers', this is what he said:

"G'day! You're not Australian? Irish? Me, I'm Australian, born and bred: a bit hot, but I like it. I like prawns too, but only with lemon. Anyway, must be off. Respect to the Australian bush y'all."

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Senoritas y Margaritas

YOU may not know this, but the first people to ever set foot on Australia, except of course the native aborigines, were the Portuguese. They landed on the western coast, found the desert landscape troublesome and not worth colonizing and tootled back off to other shores. Had they been sailing along the Eastern coast, past Sydney and up to Cape York, history may have been somewhat different - instead of a giant penal colony Australia might have been a hub of salsa dancing, speaking Portuguese and the Bruces would be sipping Margaritas with the Sheilas.

Captain Cook, after whom so much is named in these parts, did not discover Australian shores until later, but his achievements were so great history tends to remember him. On Sunday, I took a tour up the Captain Cook highway in the direction of Cooktown (in doing so passing a giant statue of Captain Cook - my first Big Thing!) to Cape Tribulation. Cape Tribulation was named by Cook "because here began all our Troubles" - it is here where the Great Barrier Reef comes to the shore, meeting the Daintree National Park, trapping any ships attempting to sail north. Cook's ship, the HMB Endeavour, ran aground here, and only survived the sail to Cooktown for repairs because a wedge of coral had sealed the vessel's hole.

Cape Tribulation is the only place in the world where two UNESCO World Heritage Sites meet. To get there, you follow a scenic drive along the coast of the Coral Sea, with white sands, turquoise waters and forested islands, beyond the sugar cane town of Mossman, the seaside resort town Port Douglas and the film set for Steven Spielberg's forthcoming film The Pacific, and into Daintree National Park itself, home to archaic and unique species of animals and plants, a hub of evolutionary biology and home to giant ferns. It was beautiful, and perhaps my favourite rainforest yet, for though I have now mentioned many rainforests, all are very different, each with different flora, structure and topography.

Cape Tribulation beach was also very beautiful, a wide expanse of sand set in a rainforested cove with very warm waters. Unfortunately, the sun refused to penetrate the dark clouds overhead, and in a combination of fatigue and frustration at hearing the same standard tourist facts once more, I did not enjoy the tour as much as I perhaps could have done.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Steve

ONE of the great things about CVA is the characters you get to meet. None more varied and fascinating are the CVA staff, a passionate bunch who have such wonderful idiosyncracies I could write many blog entries on them alone. Alas, I shall tell you all about screamy lady when I return, but for now I would like to tell you about Steve.

Steve is the man who met us upon arrival at the CVA house. It was he who gave us our safety talk, all about heat stroke, dehydration, hypothermia and all of the wildlife that likes to eat you. He told us about box jellyfish, about how the best remedies for these are (in order): vinegar, Coca-Cola or urine; he instructed us to stomp as we walk to scare off snakes, for they are just as scared of us as we are of them and will slither away if we make many vibrations on the ground; he told us how to deal with ticks and leeches; told us that the worst spiders don't live in this part of Australia; ordered us to never turn our backs on a cassowary and instructed us to never ever zigzag when chased by a crocodile. He began all of this with "We haven't had any snake bites. For a while."

The great thing about Steve is that he's a really interesting bloke who has quite a remarkable curriculum vitae, but he delivers his achievements in such a straight way that everything he says seems hilariously unreal. This is a man who spent years working with indigenous Aboriginal tribes in Arnhem land near Darwin; who had rivalling tribes arguing about who would get to host him; who is fluent in an Aboriginal language spoken by only 30 people in the world. He has studied ethno-botany (the traditional use of plants in medecine) and is an enthusiastic paleontologist. Indeed, he has discovered his very own dinosaur, a mosoasaur - an icthyosaur often labelled the 'Tyrannosaurus rex of the sea". He found this skeleton at Darwin, which has a tide that rises and falls by 8 metres, exposing the sea bed at the lowest tide. It is here the skeleton was found, giving his team only a four hour window to excavate every low tide.

It was he who also told us of the extinct megafauna of Australia, of which some I had already heard. He told of giant flat-faced kangaroos (jokily labelled maneaters), hooved crocodiles, giant wombats and carnivorous giant geese, 9-metre long snakes and marsupial lions. Dave at Cloudland Refuge also mentioned the marsupial lion, referring to a complete skeleton found along the Nullabor Plain.

Steve's advice regarding crocodiles was particularly interesting. Having himself found a saltwater crocodile (the one that has a taste for human) 14km from water and having seen them while on holiday on a house boat at Darwin, surrounded by millions of geese and fishing for barramundi over the side, he has seen his fair share. Obviously we should steer clear of the water's edge in infested areas, but if chased we should run in a straight line fast for over 100 metres, whereupon the beast will run out of energy or willpower. However, these 6 metre, one tonne creatures are not be underestimated.

On Monday we begin working in a swamp in crocodile-infested territory.

Fun.

Friday, 21 September 2007

In The Jungle, The Mighty Jungle

THIS week the CVA group (our leader Caitie, Jeannette and I, a Northern Irish lass called Kirsty, Cantabrigian Hollie and the Korean contingent: Jimmy, Sophie and Byong-Jun) stayed in the quaint village of Malanda in the Atherton Tablelands. To get there, you have to drive up 'the Gillies', a mountain range covered by eucalypt forest at a lower level and complex mesophyll rainforest up higher. The one and only road through it contains (according to some reports) over 300 corners. It is stomach-churning stuff.

Malanda itself was a delightful little place, with American Midwest-style saloon fronts to the shops and a proper country feel - that is, everything closes at 5pm and all the shops seem only to play Dire Straits on the stereo.

Our work site was the Cloudland Refuge, a site of rainforest and pasture land owned by David Upton and Robyn Land. Rachel has already explained to you why the project on the land is important and some of the things we have been up to, but because I can I am going to say it all again. The site lies on two steep slopes ranging between 800 and 960m above sea level, with overgrown abandoned grazing pasture on one side of the valley and (bear with me as I type this correctly) Simple to complex notophyll vine forest of cloudy wet highlands on basalt on the other. It has a biodiversity status of endangered and is poorly represented by National Parks. Indeed, Dave explained to me that the government cannot afford to purchase all of the endangered lands in Queensland (at least with its current agenda), so it is actively encouraging Nature Refuges like Cloudland.

Only twenty years ago Cloudland was clearfelled for cattle grazing and logging. In doing so, the then owner split the natural rainforest precisely in half, blocking animal movement between two clusters of vegetation. The CVA project at the site aims to regrow the corridor between the two halves and restore the forest, home of the cassowary, the Lumholtz tree kangaroo and lots of nasties.

Unfortunately at this time of the year trees cannot be planted, so all we can do is weed. However yesterday Kirsty, Hollie, Dave and I stripped over two kilometres of barbed wire fence which provided a needless hazard to local wildlife. With the cows and bulls gone, there is no need to keep anything in or out. Unlucky for us half of these fences went steeply uphill (we estimate with no exaggeration a gradient of 45º), the ground covered in overgrown grass concealing holes and ridges that we frequently stumbled over. Coupled with the lack of shade and 36ºc heat while wearing protective gloves, long sleeves and trousers (to keep out the creepy crawlies) it was tricky work indeed, but at the end of the day we were genuinely ecstatic about our achievements, even if a leech did go for my neck. Today also we wrestled enormous logs blocking an essential track, and though hard we were proud of the work we had done.

Back in Malanda it has been enjoyable too, not least because we spent the week teaching the Koreans really pointless English words. So if you ever come across a Korean tourist who can say the words 'codswallop', 'nincompoop' or 'onomatopoeia', it is entirely our fault.

Interlude

MANY thanks to Rachel for filling in for me while I was in an Internet-lacking rainforest. I am now back in Cairns for the weekend, refuelling and doing some clothes washing before next week's all new CVA adventure.

Just a quick correction, lest I be told off by the good folk of Australia: Stinging Tree is not a weed, but in fact native. It is still a swine of a plant though: its 'sting' administered via small tubules can last up to a year.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Imposter!

The observant ones among you may have realised that I am not your dear blogger Simon Bishop. I have momentarily seized control of his turf to update you on his travels- and because I'm a girl, I'm going to do it in pretty colours.

It seems, all in all, that he is having a brilliant time, and is happy to have not been eaten by anything with more teeth than brains. What makes him the most happy, however, is his foresight in packing a good supply of tea. Thus he also seems to be doing well to cement stereotypes of the English abroad!

I’ll leave you with a brief summary of his recent work in Deepest Darkest Australia:

Conservation project is going really well. We got there about 12 yesterday, met the owner Dave who took us onto the land for a spot of weeding. The area used to be a farm so it's grazing land that splits the rainforest in two, and now that Dave owns it he's trying to repair the damage and bring back the rainforest so animal communities in both forests can now get between habitats. It'll take him years but CVA are helping out - we can't plant as it's too dry at the moment but we can weed things like lantana and ragweed and remove barbed wire fences in the rainforest originally for cattle. It's great we can just wander through the rainforest and frankly I'm jealous Dave owns it all. Top bloke too, been chatting to him about last year's cyclone and echidnas and all sorts.”

P.S. I'm very sorry this hasn't been delivered in the stylish prose to which you are accustomed!

Sunday, 16 September 2007

Flickr Photos

In The Jungle, The Mighty Jungle

I HAVE just uploaded a few photos to my Flickr page here. I'll try and add more there as we go along.

Never Smile At A Crocodile

Saturday, 15 September 2007

Never Smile At A Crocodile (ya flamin' galah!)

ON Monday morning Jeannette and I and three others from Conservation Volunteers Australia (CVA) are heading into the Cloudlands, a part of the rainforest in the Atherton Tablelands west of Cairns. The area was largely destroyed to make way for agriculture, for ranching and dairy farming, and only about 5% of the original forest remains. It is the natural habitat for the cassowary, an endangered flightless bird heavier but slightly smaller than an emu. There are only 1500 still alive in the wild and their habitat is becoming more and more fractured. They can only be found in Far North Queensland.

Our work will be to assist the replenishment of the rainforest, planting trees and removing weeds (and trust me, when you are talking about Stinging Trees, these are pretty serious weeds) in order to restore cassowary habitat. All of this effort makes the cassowary sound like the most beautiful bird in the world.

Let me verify at this stage that they are not. They are ugly and menacing creatures. If you annoy one it will charge at you, pointing either its huge talons or the bony crest on its head (which allows it to bump off of trees) at your chest. They can and have killed by doing this. Only this morning at a crocodile farm the group visited I was chased around the outside of an enclosure by one of these creatures. I made the mistake of turning my back on it, and instantly it was charging.

In Gerald Durrell's 1962 book Two In The Bush, he talked of an animal centre with kangaroos, wallabies and a cassowary called Claude, who charged and pounded any animal that got between him and his food. He recalled that in one pen, the kangaroos had learnt to get out of the way of the pouncing bird at the last second, such that Claude fell rather comically flat on his face. I do hope I get to see this happen: this morning I was genuinely scared of the thing, even though there was a fence between us.

Yet it doesn't matter that it's not a particularly nice animal. It is endangered, through every fault of our own, so it's our turn to do something about that. This is why we shall be spending at least a week in a forest full of plenty of things that fancy us for lunch, trying to build a new home for these awesome animals.

We've had our safety talks, we've bought the gear, so it's off into the wild we go.

I am really, really excited.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

I'm a Natural Blue

JUST off the Queensland coast is a little marine wonder called the Great Barrier Reef. You may have heard of it. On Monday I went there.

Setting off from Cairns Marina at 8am, our sailing boat, called Ocean Free, took two hours to motor to Green Island (it wasn't a particularly speedy boat, but the view and sea breeze made the time pass rapidly). Mooring to a buoy just offshore, we were given a quick rundown about snorkelling, and then allowed to jump in.

I have never snorkelled before, nor used flippers. Thus upon entering the sea (which was surprisingly cold) I was faced with two quite taxing challenges. Legs flailing about everywhere, I hyperventilated my way to a floating platform, taking quite panicky breaths, not quite sure how to breathe. The difficulty lies in having to restrict all breathing to the mouth, since the nose is blocked off. While floating this is surprisingly hard work.

Eventually however, I calmed down and breathed steadily, still kicking my legs in quite comical directions. Suddenly I could see what I was surrounded by. Colour abounded everywhere, from the fish and the corals; weird and wonderful shapes created a remarkable landscape. I was swimming over corals shaped like trees, worms and giant brains. There were clams and the most exciting fish. I regret I am unable to tell you the names of the fish I saw, on account of not knowing, but as accurately as I can describe there were Big Ones, Small Ones, Long Ones and Rotund Ones. One fish had a beautiful purple body with bright green fins. It was so stunning I actually said "wow!" out loud, which I regretted instantly, as salt water filled my snorkel and eye mask. What was remarkable was when I bobbed up to find the boat, I would return to have fish, rainbow coloured or jet blue, swimming happily within grabbing distance.

Lunch followed, a smorgasboard of meats, salads and breads, before boarding Green Island itself, a rainforested site conserved as a National Park, with a $500 per night resort (which hosted the world premiere of Finding Nemo. The island used to be the home of the Gungandji people, but is now home to the largest crocodile in captivity. Warmed and eager to snorkel once more we returned to the boat and jumped straight in, far more confident and spurred on by the news some divers had seen sharks and turtles. I saw neither, but I was not disappointed, because the Reef is perhaps the most beautiful habitat I have ever seen.

We sailed with the wind behind us part way home, wined and dined with platters of fruit, cake and cheeses, and landed in Cairns at 5pm. It had been a fantastic day.

I may not have Internet access for two weeks from Friday, so there may be no more updates until then, which is a shame, because I want to tell you all about the rainforest, the mudskippers of the esplanade and our hunt for platypus (possibly). We're off to do a conservation project near here until then, so we may and probably will be in the middle of nowhere.

Sunday, 9 September 2007

A Day In International Territory

CHANGI airport prides itself as the finest airport in the world. On our final day in Singapore we were, to be honest, a little bored of the city and didn't fancy carrying our enormous bags through the never-ending layrinth of shopping malls in the city centre. So we headed early to the airport to test its reputation. The following is a selection of highlights of our ten hour stay.

12.30pm We have arrived! The signs say there are cinemas and a swimming pool and public gardens, so we should have lots to do. It's a very modern, spacious and clean building with lots of light and informative signs. We should be fine.

12.35pm After a quick look around, it would appear that all of the interesting airport amenities are inside the departure lounge, which we cannot enter until we have checked in. For now, we have a Burger King for company.

12.40pm Ooh, nice fountains!

3.00pm I've been sat reading and listening to my mp3 player (henceforth called Len) for ages and we still cannot check in. My most interesting observation is that the hand driers in the toilets are quite exciting. I fancy cake.

4.05pm Bought a sandwich. I daren't guess what was in it.

4.30pm 'Cairns via Darwin' appears on the screen. We head to check in but the kiosk still says Bangkok. We ask both at Jetstar airways and Qantas, and both say the same - we cannot check in until 7.15pm. We relocate to the 'viewing mall' for a change of scenery.

4.45pm Oh look, a plane.

5.00pm To pass the time, I have begun listening to my entire U2 collection on Len in alphabetical order. I get to the oddly named Alex Descends into Hell for a Bottle of Milk when a little plane appears out of the back of the Qantas 747 in front of me through the window, as if the Jumbo has just given birth to a baby Boeing through its exhaust.

5.30pm Jeannette goes in search of food.

5.35pm I need the toilet. I push my trolley into the men's room in the hope that a disabled cubicle will have room for my trolley and me, but the room is narrow and everyone stares at me. I wash my hands as if that was my plan all along and get out quickly, wishing airports catered more for security-conscious lone travellers.

6.30pm Jeannette and I have a lovely conversation about what would happen if the Queen turned 100 herself.

7.15pm Woohoo! Check in finally opens. Budget airline to Australia here we come!

7.45pm We are through immigration and into the departure lounge!

7.46pm Jeannette has already found a copy of Heat.

Anyway, we got here in the end. Crikey! I'm in Australia!

Friday, 7 September 2007

The War The World Forgot

A few days ago I wrote this in my diary. I thought it might be sensible to post it here.

"TODAY we went to Changi Chapel and Prison Museum. Changi gaol was designed for 600 prisoners but when the Japanese conquered Singapore in 1942 they incarcerated 3000 civilians there, later replacing them with 10,000 POWs, who were tortured, starved and treated like the lowest of the low: Brits, Australians, Chinese, Indians, anyone; men, women, children and grandparents; soldiers and civilians. Some were made to work on the Burmese-Thailand railway - the 'Death Railway' - with only a fraction surviving. And all of this because, due to a matter of personnel, the British thought the risk of Japan invading Singapore was only "hypothetical".

Then, to finish it all, the Allied forces dropped two atomic bombs, one from the B-29 Enola Gay on Hiroshima and then Bock's Car dropped another on Nagasaki, the first obliterating 66,000 innocent civilians and the latter 39,000. It was all tremendously inhumane, disturbing and purely evil, even if it was strategic.

What makes it worse is that I had no idea of any of this. I knew of the atom bomb but did not really know why it was dropped. In the UK, school history lessons when I was younger were repeatedly about the Tudors and the Germans, never any of this. I came to Singapore entirely naive. I shall return knowing of a war which should never be forgotten, but is forgotten. I am currently saddened and very, very angry."

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Welcome to Paradise

IN Danny Wallace's Yes Man, he travels to Singapore and is taken to paradise by a man on a bumboat. It is an island called Pulau Ubin, where he picks up a poorly worded leaflet from an oversize tourist information centre, then hires a bike until he is chased by a lizard.

I did not come here to copy Danny. I, too, wanted to experience traditional Singapore, but I was willing to visit any of the 63 islands. I didn't necessarily want to hire a bicycle, nor did I want to be chased by a lizard. But when our receptionist at the Metro-Y said Pulau Ubin was by far the best to visit, and cycling was the way to see it, who was I to argue?

So yesterday we caught a bumboat from Changi Point and headed north to the wonderful, beautiful and utterly remarkable island of Pulau Ubin, or Granite Island in Malay. We disembarked, and headed to the tourist information hut (indeed a very large building for a man with a leaflet) but were given a very well worded leaflet about the island - it's geography, history and it's national park at the tip. A separate brochure about this park Chek Jawa, told us of it's mangrove swamps and rocky shores, it's coral beds and sea grasses. We got the first bicycles we saw (a mistake, as these were more expensive) and headed into the jungle. This, finally, felt like Asia. We were riding through a tropical jungle, swamps either side, with palms and creeping lianas. Strange sounding birds could be heard in the distance and insects were aiming for our faces. We passed kampongs, traditional villages, houses made of corrugated iron sheets and the people surviving on subsistence, fishing and hiring bicycles. Eventually, out of breath and with extremely sore backsides, we reached the haven of Chek Jawa.

And here I shall stop. It was too good to write about here and besides, I've got to have something to tell you when I get back! The only other thing you need to know was the island was sponsored by HSBC, the world's local bank.

A Lizard Watched Me In The Shower!

IN 1819, Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles (a magnificent name if ever I heard one) of the British East India Company landed in Singapore with the intention of making the island a free port on the India-China trading route. One month later, with the signing of a treaty with the Sultan of Johor-Riau, he was succesful. In doing so, however, he annoyed the Dutch a tad, seeing as Singapore was part of their Johor-Riau Empire. Lots of agreements and treaties later and Britain was now the proud owner of Malacca, Penang and Singapore and the Dutch acquired Bencoolen (now Bengkulu). Later we took over the governance of Singapore and helped build it into the "Great Commercial Emporium of the East". We then lost it to the Japanese in an embarrassing defeat in World War II and then, no sooner had we gained it back, Singapore achieved independence in 1959.

The signs in Singapore make Raffles out to be some kind of demi-god. Born on a merchant ship, he joined the British East India Company as a clerk, rapidly rising to Lieutenant-Governer of both Java and Bencoolen. He helped abolish slavery, drafted constitutions and laws, laid down provisions for the magistracy in the administration of justice, outlawed public drinking, was a visionary and a bloody nice chap. He was a keen botanist, discovering the world's largest flower, Rafflesia arnoldi, and set up the Singapore Institution, now the Raffles Institution. He developed the botanical gardens and was renowned for outstanding contributions to archaeology. He died at the age of 45, no doubt exhausted but more than a little smug. Anyway, what he did for Singapore was more than a good idea. It's position and status as a free port allowed it to grow immeasurably, from the small fishing island on the tip of the Malay peninsula it was to the modern metropolis of today.

And what a metropolis. Yes, you've got shopping centres with Marks & Spencers, Accessorize and HMV, but you've got the markets and hawker centers (food halls with end to end stalls covering every type of Asian cuisine - Korean, Indian, Chinese, Malay etc.). It has the standard Chinatown and Little India districts but these are separated by business skyscrapers. One minute you might be looking at a replica of St Paul's cathedral and the next struggling to see the top of a building. There are parts of the city which could pass as parts of London (the colonial effect), New York, Beijing and Mumbai. It is the strangest mish-mash of styles you could see, but they fit together seemlessly, and all the while it is distinctly Singapore.

The streets are lined with trees, bushes and bright pink flowers too. It is the greenest city I have ever seen. It is definitely Asian (you need only to look at the cuisine, the people, the languages) but it feels like Britain with tropical weather. The signs are in English first, Malay second. Everybody speaks English, but in a notably British way - no insincere 'Have A Nice Day's but 'Good Morning' and 'I'm Terribly Sorry' if they bump into you. It really feels like a corner of Asia that has been stolen by Britain, and it has found this remarkable and wonderful intermediate culture.

Not all of it is wonderful, of course. Jeannette drank Bird's Nest Drink and shall never be doing so again. I, too, ate a traditional dish called Laksa, ordering it on a whim. It was a soup with noodles and what I presume were clams, plus a tofu-type substance I shall henceforth refer to as Fire Toast. The whole dish was horrendously spicy, and kept surprising me - halfway through half an egg appeared. I gave up before I saw tentacles.

But it is going well. The place is bizarre but magnificent and we are having a great time.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Bumpy on the Bay of Bengal

HELLO! I'm in Singapore!

We landed on Sunday after a long but passable flight, in which the lady next to me kept knocking my reading light button. This, no doubt to the amusement and/or annoyance of everyone around created a one man disco in seat 46D. Our flight took us over Holland, Germany, Poland, Russia, Iran, India, the Andaman Islands, Thailand and Malaysia before arriving in the city at around 5pm local time.

As we were queueing for customs, a man with a silly hat watched over us. We decided, however, that informing him of our opinion of said garment would have been foolish, as would laughing childishly have been. since he was also carrying a semi automatic machine gun. We then noticed a warning on the back of our customs documents. It read:

"WARNING: Death for Drug Traffickers Under Singapore Law"

This is not a country to mess about in. Indeed, I had read beforehand of some of the strict laws. Littering carries a fine of $1,000. Chewing Gum is illegal. Thus, when presented with a bowl of sweets at customs, we were slightly apprehensive. Was it legal to take one? Was this a test to check who knew the law and who didn't? No, it was just a friendly gesture to welcome you to a remarkable city. My sweet was blackcurrant flavour.

Our taxi sped off into the unknown streets towards our accommodation, the Metro-Y Youth Lodge in Geylang, entertaining us with local radio. It was perhaps foolish to expect Malaysian or Asian music upon arrival, but we were, after all, in a Singapore taxi, in Singapore itself, being driven by a Singaporean. Thus it came as some surprise to be listening to 'Today's Best Mix' which was, at this very occasion, the Bee Gees.

Settled in to our accommodation, we took the MRT train into town to a station called Bugis, a shopping centre of epic proportions. After eating some chicken rice, we headed into the streets. The very warm streets. The humidity is so high that your clothes really do stick to you instantly and you could reasonably expect that, if Singapore law did not keep the streets so manicured and tidy (and trust me, they are), the city would be swamped by jungle in a matter of minutes. Almost instantly Jeannette's hair began to frizz and we were both lost for words.

We found the Raffles hotel but did not enter then returned to the air conditioned haven of Bugis. Day one had been a long, tiring experience but here we were, in Singapore!

I've run out of internet time. Stay tuned for reports of the city itself, and a trip to paradise...